Hearing and listening
Listening is an important skill that can - and should - be learned. It is the gateway to building solid client relationships, taking accurate briefs, identifying business opportunities, working with fewer mistakes, and developing empathy. If there is one communication skill that you should aim to master, it's listening.
As listening (the skill) is an extension of hearing (the function), you may think you are listening just fine, when - in actual fact - you're missing the mark.
You were present in the client meeting, you recorded notes and formulated a brief. Somehow there was a disconnect between what you thought you heard the client say, and the creative output that was given back to your client - and your client is not happy. Does this sound familiar?
Or, perhaps you were in a client meeting and so excited about sharing your ideas and discussing the project that you talked more than you listened.
One of the most frustrating things, for a client, is an account manager who doesn't listen to them.
Why aren't you listening?!
Hearing instead of listening can happen when:
- Your mind is not fully-focused on the situation at hand.
- You are distracted, tired or bored.
- You are too busy talking, or thinking about what you are going to say next.
- You have your own ideas which you think take precedent over your client's instructions.
- You hear what you want to hear.
- You don't agree, and so you close off to what the other person is saying.
- You take minimal notes only (or no notes at all).
- The conversation is moving faster than you can keep up with.
- You are unable to distinguish important from non-important points.
The power of listening is in your hands
There are many things you can do develop your listening skills:
Stop talking. That means learning to listen to what others are saying and resisting the urge to interrupt, talk over or finish another's sentences.
Focus. Being able to focus your mind on the situation or conversation at hand will help to banish distractions.
Maintain eye contact. Looking at a speaker (without being creepy) will help the speaker feel they are being listened to, and will help you pick up subtle communication cues that get lost if you are looking elsewhere.
Be patient. Waiting for a speaker to finish is not only polite, it allows you to soak up the conversation and develop a better understanding of what is being said.
Try to be impartial. Becoming irritated or letting personal prejudices get in the way will only serve to close your mind (and ears) off to what is being said.
Watch for body language. Focusing on a speaker's whole delivery - words, gestures, facial expressions, eye movements, mannerisms, tone, pitch, volume - will help you to understand the nuances of what is being said.
Show you are listening. Every now and then you can use your own body language to show you are listening - nodding, smiling, good posture, arms which are relaxed arms rather than folded. Saying the occasional "yes", "mmm" and "uh huh" will help too.
Understanding - your ultimate goal
If hearing is step one, and listening is step two, then understanding is step three. To show your client that you understand what they are saying, you can:
Ask for clarification. Such as "is this what you mean?" or "what do you mean when you say… ?".
Paraphrase. Try repeating the nutshell version of what you have just heard.
Summarise. Every so often you can review what has been said to make sure you are all on the same page.
Send a reverse brief. A reverse brief is a document you send to your client after you have taken the initial brief for a campaign or project. The reverse brief should include your interpretation of the deliverables, scope, timeframes and costs. It will soon confirm whether you have heard, listened and understood the requirements correctly.
Being a great listener is one of the most important tools in an account manager's toolkit. It is also a base skill which other skills require for their development (e.g. empathy, caring, efficiency, organisation). Master this one key skill and you have a better chance of mastering them all. The effort is worth it!
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